‘Forever family’: Foster teens struggle for stability

Betty McGinnis and her son, Joaquin, pose for a photo. (J.D. Long-Garcia/CATHOLIC SUN)

His fist came crashing through the door. Ten-year-old Joaquin had just spent forever brushing the dog at the behest of his mother’s boyfriend who was watching him for the day.

After what seemed like hours of brushing, it wasn’t good enough. But Joaquin was through with the charade. He marched into his room, slamming the door behind him. The boyfriend raged.

Joaquin yelled back when the boyfriend yelled through the door. That’s when Joaquin found himself looking up at the fist. Joaquin looked around his room and spotted a baseball bat. He used it.

The incident seven years ago started a domino effect. Child Protective Services showed up at Joaquin’s school and took him away from his mother.

“She would sleep around and drink a whole bottle of vodka everyday,” Joaquin said plainly. He was placed in a foster care home for a couple years.

His mother got herself sorted out for a bit, so he went back to her. Six months later, though, she was drinking again.

Joaquin went back into foster care. He was placed with one family, and then another. But it wasn’t working out.

Then he met Betty McGinnis, a northern Arizona Catholic. McGinnis had signed up to be a foster parent through Catholic Charities, expecting to adopt.

“I told him that when he felt that it was right he should let me know so that we could begin the adoption process,” she said. McGinnis told him that pretty much right from the start.

A month later, Joaquin was ready. Just like that.

“It just felt right,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

Today, there are around 10,000 foster children in Arizona, thousands of whom are teenagers like Joaquin. More than 800 teens live in group homes.

“We never have enough homes for teens,” said Jennifer Devore, who works with Catholic Charities’ foster care program in Cottonwood. She estimated more than 75 percent of parents interested in adoption want children 0-5 years of age.

“Teens have a bad rap, and some of them deserve it,” Devore said. “You’re going to make dumb choices; it’s a teenage thing.”

Foster teens need a stable adult in their lives. Many come from homes where substance abuse, particularly crystal meth, is prevalent.

“If they have the right person investing in their lives, they can make a change,” Devore said. “It’s not always easy, and they may never say ‘Thank you,’ but they still need that person.”

McGinnis is that person for Joaquin. He tested her love, though, and continues to test her. He’d been placed four times before meeting McGinnis, so he wasn’t quick to settle down and hang his heart on his sleeve.

“He’s been in foster care since he was 10, so he’s gone through seven years of not knowing if [his home] is for real,” McGinnis explained. Having three years of stablility with her doesn’t erase the instability he grew up with, she said.

‘Forever family’

What makes it work for McGinnis and Joaquin is this stability and McGinnis’ undying commitment to her son.

“I’m mostly happy now that I’m with my mom,” Joaquin said. “Even though she can be a pain at times, making me do my school work, which I don’t really care about. She cares because that’s what’s going to get me somewhere in the future.”

The consistency of the relationship led Joaquin to trust McGinnis; that, and her kindness and love.

“Be kind to the kid,” Joaquin advised potential foster parents. “Don’t be abusive. If you get angry, just don’t, like, get overly angry. And if you do, don’t touch the kid.”

He took a moment and thought.

“Always make sure your kid’s homework is done,” Joaquin added.

“Oh I’m going to have fun tonight!” McGinnis chuckled. “That will be in print. That’s in black and white.”

Joaquin has come a long way from hiding in his closet after hitting the boyfriend’s fist with a baseball bat. Recently, when he knew he’d crossed a line in his behavior, he confessed it to McGinnis. Like any good mother, McGinnis put certain disciplines into place to break her son’s bad habit.

She lives with uncertainty. McGinnis wants to be a part of Joaquin’s life forever, but she’s unsure how he’ll act after he turns 18. He’s spent most of his life without her and it can leave her feeling like an outsider.

“You don’t know if those seeds are going to take hold or if what he’s known growing up will be a part of his future,” McGinnis said, referring to substance abuse. “Those unknowns are hard, especially as an adopted parent. You want what’s best for your kid and you’re never really sure.”

Despite the uncertainty of the future, McGinnis proves, time and again, that she will be there for Joaquin no matter what.

“There’s been so much inconsistency in his life and it’s not his fault,” she said. “It’s part of the system. [Foster children] will test it to make sure this is going to be that stable home. Even after three years, [Joaquin] is still testing it.”

McGinnis is from a large family. Joaquin was instantly welcomed into it as the 20th grandchild — a “full indoctrination” into the McGinnis clan. She finds herself — in good and bad situations — telling Joaquin, “This is how a family does things.”

It’s working. Joaquin isn’t hiding anymore.